What’s Really Going on at the Water Table? - DuPage Children's Museum

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What’s Really Going on at the Water Table?

May 12, 2016

The water tables are always busy here at DCM because children are naturally drawn to water. As a child, I have vivid memories of sifting through pebbles on the shoreline, puddle jumping on hot summer evenings, and experimenting with various materials in the water table in my nursery school classroom. As a result, I was never one to stop my preschoolers from filling little pools of water on the slide with woodchips when playing on the playground after it rained, or dropping rocks into muddy puddles.  Maybe it’s the way the light reflects off the surface, the way that it seems to mysteriously move, or the innate desire to answer the question, “what will happen if I…” that lures children into those puddles.

Regardless of the motivation, this natural pull clearly demonstrates the theories of modern cognitive psychologists Piaget and Vygotsky regarding the child’s innate drive to make sense of the world and the things in it. By jumping in that puddle or splashing in the sink, your child is working to actively construct an understanding of the properties of water and so much more. Water play promotes problem-solving and thinking skills in general, but also presents open-ended opportunities to experiment with math and science concepts, strengthen physical skills, advance social and emotional skills, and enhance language development. Here’s a little peak into the learning and development going on in the water table and some ways to extend this learning at home –

Learning mathematical concepts can depend on the materials selected as well as the interaction. A few concepts that can be explored through water play include – empty/full, many/few, thick/thin, more/less, heavy/light, shallow/deep.

Scientific thinking – Water play naturally lends itself to curiosity, experimentation, and asking questions, all of which are important in both inductive and deductive thinking. Through their active explorations children can develop an understanding of buoyancy, force, energy, properties of liquids, and more!

Physical Development
Water play is a great way to exercise fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, both of which are important in learning to write. Wringing out sponges, exploring squeeze bottles, manipulating medicine droppers or turkey basters, and pouring water from one container into another, are all examples of activities that strengthen physical skills.

Water Play at Home
You can make your own water table with a plastic storage bin. Here are some items you might consider letting your child explore –

  • Pots
  • Measuring cups
  • Basters
  • Sponges
  • Hand mixers
  • Gentle, nontoxic liquid soap
  • Bowls
  • Funnels
  • Brushes
  • Spray bottles
  • lastic containers with lids (poke holes in some of them so children can explore what happens)


Invite children to make decisions – Ask questions and make comments to spark children’s curiosity and engagement.

  • I noticed that you . . .
  • I wonder what would happen if . . . ?
  • How did/could you . . . ?
  • What’s similar/different about these?
  • Why do you think this works?


You can also add props to your water table to inspire dramatic play –

  • Sea creatures
  • Baby dolls
  • Small fishnets
  • Building blocks
  • Toy boats


Feeling adventurous? Offer your child new ways to explore by filling your water table with unexpected sensory items –

  • Snow (provide gloves and spray bottles with colored water)
  • Ice (have gloves available)
  • Ice cubes (add interesting objects to the water before freezing)
  • Natural materials, such as leaves, twigs, rocks, pebbles, pinecones, acorns, sunflower seeds

What are you favorite memories of water play? Tried something at home you would like to share? We love to hear about your experiences! Comment here, on Facebook, or on Twitter!

Photo credit-
3rd photos Scooter Lowrimore – View License